Biography of Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev

Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (Russian: Никола́й Степа́нович Гумилёв, IPA: [nʲɪkɐˈlaj sʲtʲɪˈpanəvʲɪtɕ ɡʊmʲɪˈlʲɵf] (listen); April 15 NS 1886 – August 26, 1921) was an influential Russian poet, literary critic, traveler, and military officer. He was a cofounder of the Acmeist movement. He was husband of Anna Akhmatova and father of Lev Gumilev. Nikolay Gumilyov was arrested and executed by the Cheka, the secret Soviet police force, in 1921.

Early life and poems

Nikolay Gumilyov was born in the town of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island, into the family of Stepan Yakovlevich Gumilyov (1836–1910), a naval physician, and Anna Ivanovna L'vova (1854–1942). His childhood nickname was "Montigomo," the Hawk's Claw. He studied at the gymnasium of Tsarskoye Selo, where the Symbolist poet Innokenty Annensky was his teacher. Later, Gumilyov admitted that it was Annensky's influence that turned his mind to writing poetry.

His first publication were verses I ran from cities into the forest (Я в лес бежал из городов) on September 8, 1902. In 1905 he published his first book of lyrics entitled The Way of Conquistadors. It comprised poems on most exotic subjects imaginable, from Lake Chad giraffes to Caracalla's crocodiles. Although Gumilyov was proud of the book, most critics found his technique sloppy; later he would refer to that collection as apprentice's work.

From 1907 and on, Nikolai Gumilyov traveled extensively in Europe, notably in Italy and France. In 1908 his new collection Romantic Flowers appeared. While in Paris, he published the literary magazine Sirius, but only three issues were produced. On returning to Russia, he edited and contributed to the artistic periodical Apollon. At that period, he fell in love with a non-existent woman Cherubina de Gabriak. It turned out that Cherubina de Gabriak was the literary pseudonym for two people: Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva and Maximilian Voloshin. On November 22, 1909 he had a duel with Voloshin over the affair.

Gumilyov married Anna Akhmatova on April 25, 1910. He dedicated some of his poems to her. On September 18, 1912, their child Lev was born. He would eventually become an influential and controversial historian.

Travel to Africa

Like Flaubert and Rimbaud before him, but inspired by exploits of Alexander Bulatovich and Nikolay Leontiev, Gumilyov was fascinated with Africa and travelled there almost each year. He explored, helping development of Ethiopia, sometime hunted lions, and brought to the Saint Petersburg museum of anthropology and ethnography a large collection of African artifacts. His landmark collection The Tent (1921) collected the best of his poems on African themes, one of them "Giraffe".

Guild of Poets

In 1910, Gumilyov fell under the spell of the Russian Symbolist poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov and absorbed his views on poetry at the evenings held by Ivanov in his celebrated "Turreted House". His wife Akhmatova accompanied him to Ivanov's parties as well.

Dissatisfied with the vague mysticism of Russian Symbolism, then prevalent in the Russian poetry, Gumilyov and Sergei Gorodetsky established the so-called Guild of Poets, which was modeled after medieval guilds of Western Europe. They advocated a view that poetry needs craftsmanship just like architecture needs it. Writing a good poem they compared to building a cathedral. To illustrate their ideals, Gumilyov published two collections, The Pearls in 1910 and the Alien Sky in 1912. It was Osip Mandelstam, however, who produced the movement's most distinctive and durable monument, the collection of poems entitled Stone (1912).

According to the principles of acmeism (as the movement came to be dubbed by art historians), every person, irrespective of his talent, may learn to produce high-quality poems if only he follows the guild's masters, i.e., Gumilyov and Gorodetsky. Their own model was Théophile Gautier, and they borrowed much of their basic tenets from the French Parnasse. Such a program, combined with colourful and exotic subject matter of Gumilyov's poems, attracted to the Guild a large number of adolescents. Several major poets, notably Georgy Ivanov and Vladimir Nabokov, passed the school of Gumilyov, albeit informally.

War experience

When World War I started, Gumilyov hastened to Russia and enthusiastically joined a corps of elite cavalry. He fought in battles in East Prussia and Macedonia. For his bravery he was invested with two St. George crosses (December 24, 1914 and January 5, 1915).

His war poems were assembled in the collection The Quiver (1916). In 1916 he wrote a verse play, Gondla, which was published the following year; set in ninth-century Iceland, torn between its native paganism and Irish Christianity, it is also clearly autobiographical, Gumilyov putting much of himself into the hero Gondla (an Irishman chosen as king but rejected by the jarls, he kills himself to ensure the triumph of Christianity) and basing Gondla's wild bride Lera on Gumilyov's wife Akhmatova (or maybe Larissa Reissner). The play was performed in Rostov na Donu in 1920.

During the Russian Revolution, Gumilyov served in the Russian Expeditionary Force in France. Despite advice to the contrary, he rapidly returned to Petrograd. There he published several new collections, Tabernacle and Bonfire, and finally divorced Akhmatova (August 5, 1918), whom he had left for another woman several years prior. The following year he married Anna Nikolaevna Engelhardt, a noblewoman and daughter of a well-known historian.


In 1920 Gumilyov co-founded the All-Russia Union of Writers. Gumilyov made no secret of his anti-communist views. He also made the Sign of the Cross in public and didn't care to hide his contempt for "half-literate Bolsheviks". On August 3, 1921, he was arrested by the Cheka on charges of participation in a nonexistent monarchist conspiracy known as the "Petrograd military organization". On August 24, the Petrograd Cheka decreed execution of 61 participants of the case, including Nikolay Gumilyov. They were shot on August 26 in the Kovalevsky Forest (the actual date was established only in 2014; previously it was thought he died on August 25). Maxim Gorky, his friend and fellow writer, hurried to Moscow and appealed to Lenin, but was unable to save Gumilyov.


Gumilyov's execution placed a stigma on Anna Akhmatova and on their son, Lev. Lev was arrested later in the purges of the 1930s and spent almost two decades in the Gulag.Despite Gumilyov's execution by the Cheka, Gondla was again performed in Petrograd in January 1922: "The play, despite its crowd scenes being enacted on a tiny stage, was a major success. Yet when the Petrograd audience called for the author, who was now officially an executed counter-revolutionary traitor, the play was removed from the repertoire and the theatre disbanded."In February 1934, as they walked along a Moscow street, Osip Mandelstam quoted Gondla's words "I am ready to die" to Akhmatova, and she repeated them in her "Poem without a Hero."

Cultural influence

Although banned in the Soviet times, Gumilyov was loved for his adolescent longing for travel and giraffes and hippos, for his dreams of a fifteen-year-old captain" His "The Tram That Lost Its Way" is considered one of the greatest poems of the 20th century.

The Russian progressive rock band Little Tragedies used the poetry of Gumilyov in many of their songs, and had four albums which were entirely based on Gumilyov's poetry (The Sun of the Spirit, Porcelain Pavilion, Return, Cross).

In 2016 an English translation of his verse drama Gondla was published by the Irish poet and diplomat Philip McDonagh and a production toured in Ireland.

See also

Silver Age of Russian Poetry

4556 Gumilyov, an asteroid named after him

List of famous duels

Russian people in Ethiopia

Alexander Bulatovich

Leonid Artamonov

Nikolay Leontiev


Further reading

Владимир Полушин. Николай Гумилев. Жизнь расстрелянного поэта. – М., Молодая гвардия, 2006, 750 с. (ЖЗЛ).

Struve, Gleb (November 1946). "Blok and Gumilyov: A double anniversary". The Slavonic and East European Review. 25 (64).

External links

Nikolay Gumilev - Woods Reading in English on YouTube

Collection of Poems by Nikolay Gumilev (English Translations)

Russian Site on Gumilev

Nikolay Gumilyov. Poems

Works by Nikolay Gumilyov at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)

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